After 24 years of marriage, I'm often left pondering the question, "Truly, what is the secret to a lifelong love?"
Being the nerd that I am, I'm aware of what research shows are the secrets to having a love that goes the distance. Here at Focus on the Family we even developed an assessment and assistance program for couples looking to nurture the 12 traits of a healthy marriage as they build a lifelong love. But in reality, marriage isn't a research project. Marriage is a dynamic relationship involving two human beings with the potential to "miss the mark" in the day-in-and-day-out living with each other. And then there are the changing seasons in married life. There are seasons when couples have the energy and motivation to read marriage books and listen to marriage podcasts and actually apply what they learn. Then there are seasons that are quite challenging and couples just hope to make it to bed still talking to each other.
I'm guessing you've been there and know what I'm talking about. Marriage can be challenging at times — it can be lovely at other times. So I'm back to pondering, "What's the real secret to lifelong love?"
Build a lifelong love through the changing seasons
My husband, Greg, and I have a good marriage. I would say there are seasons of great in our relationship and there are seasons of challenge. Over the years, I've landed on a few secrets that are based on the reality of our life together with two careers and four children; our commitment to travel to marriage seminars; and our need to coordinate the children's basketball, soccer and gymnastic schedules. And oh, yes, our need to pay the bills, clean the house, cook the meals and tackle the mountains of laundry. And, with all that going on, Greg and I still want to stay connected as a couple.
Here are three of my reality-based secrets to building a lifelong love in marriage:
Practice heart-felt, proactive communication. Last week I attended our marriage small group by myself because Greg was at home recovering from a kidney stone. One of our mutual friends asked me to give Greg a verbal message, but when I got home late that night, Greg was sound asleep. He was up early the next morning, and later that evening we were carting kids to separate activities. The following day, our mutual friend inquired about Greg's response to the message I was supposed to deliver. I humbly responded that I had forgotten to pass along the message and I hadn't even seen my husband for more than five minutes that day. Our friend gave me a confused look, so I assured him that I would mention it to Greg at lunch the next day. At times, this is our reality. However, a marriage will not survive long term with so little interaction. Communication is truly the life-blood of a marriage — which means Greg and I have to fight for time together. We are intentional about what we do during the time we create to be together. For example, instead of bringing up issues about the kids, we make it our goal to check in with each other. We ask great questions about what's going on at an emotional level, we discuss how we are feeling, and we really try to learn something about each other.
This crazy, wonderful season of life in which we're raising children — our beautiful chaos — will pass. At some point Greg and I will enter a quieter, slower season — and so will you. Whatever the season in your marriage, you must be intentional about creating quality, heartfelt communication in your relationship. Building a lifelong marriage requires you to be proactive in your interactions as husband and wife.
Work as a team. The concept of teamwork is often seen as two or more people coordinating their efforts around a common cause. With that in mind, marriage is the perfect place to put this into practice!
Greg and I have found that simply reminding each other that we are on the same team makes all the difference in our interactions. In essence, we are assuring each other that we will work together to come up with a solution that feels good to both of us. It doesn't matter if we're negotiating simple decisions (like who's making dinner, paying the bills or taking the kids to practice) or bigger decisions (like planning a move, considering a job change or making a major financial investment).
Greg and I have strong personalities — with strong opinions — so the potential is always there for a power struggle in our relationship. We have learned that we have to be intentional about working together as a team. If you find yourself in the same situation, I encourage you to step out of the power struggle and work with your spouse for the good of your lifelong marriage.
Spend time together. In different seasons of married life, finding time to spend together can be challenging. Greg and I used to be super intentional about weekly date nights, but with each additional child in our family, date nights became fewer and further between. We still encourage couples to have date nights throughout the changing seasons of their marriage and to be intentional about what they do with their time together on those dates. Research has shown that doing something new and exciting together can reignite the romantic feelings in marriage. This doesn't mean you have to go over the top with expensive and extraordinary ideas; simply break out of the rut of what you usually do together. For example, if you like to go to dinner and a movie on your date night, choose a different theater and eat at a different restaurant. And when you're out together, set aside conversations about finances, kids and in-laws — stick with enjoying each other's company.
Enjoy each other through the changing seasons
What better time to refocus on your marriage — on each other — than on Valentine's Day? Let Focus on the Family help you reconnect amid the chaos as we encourage couples to honor marriage this Valentine's Day and every day throughout the changing seasons of married life. The writer of Proverbs 5:18 says, "Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth." So, rejoice with each other as you build a marriage — your marriage — into a lifelong love!
Erin Smalley serves in the Marriage and Family Formation department at Focus on the Family and is co-author of Take the Date Night Challenge.